As a kid growing up in Al Jadida, a coastal town south of Casablanca, Cee like most of his friends wanted to be a football star. An illness soon shattered his dreams of kicking balls in big stadiums, so he turned to music which gave him solace and a creative outlet. His DJ career started early, throwing neighborhood parties. Now, a decade later, Cee ElAssaad has become a heavyweight on the Afro-house scene, who helped put Morocco on the electronic music map. He’s received accolades for his production work – ranking in Traxsource’s Top 100 Afro-house artists for the last five years – and his live performances, touring across Europe and elsewhere in Africa.
The pandemic has hit the music scene real hard everywhere. Can you tell us how you all have coped in Morocco?
Since beginning of pandemic, there have been absolutely no official events going on, so it’s been tough for everyone on the scene: DJs, venues, promoters, club owners. Only unauthorized parties have taken place, but I’ve stayed away from those, for obvious reasons. The hardest part for me is that we have no visibility, no end date in sight, which makes it impossible to plan. Like many DJs and producers out there, pretty much the only thing I have been doing is making music – lots of it actually – but I don’t have a clear strategy of how and when to release it, because of all the uncertainty. Making music helps me forget about the negativity that comes with the pandemic, but I have to say that this period also enabled me to take steps back and reflect about my career. It’s given time for finding myself even more and helped me figure out how I want to evolve as an artist post-pandemic. Before COVID I never had time to meditate. I was stuck in a gigs / studio / gigs / studio / gigs type of routine.
How has your vision evolved with all this introspection?
Over the last few months, my vision changed a lot. I am better able to define my musical identity and what’s coming out is going to be different but more “me”. I have a better sense of what I am doing and above all why I am doing it. You know, when you start touring and making a bit of money, your ego and bank account gets boosted and it’s easy to lose focus. You may start doing things you are not convinced about because you think it makes commercial sense, but you lose yourself in the process. On my end, I have been making music to express myself, not to seek fame or money. And from now on, I am going to be 100% about my music, and not try to please people in the industry.
What does that mean in terms of your own production?
In short, it’s really just a focus on quality. I have changed the way I make music. I am doing more collaborative work, recording with musicians, using more synths and sequencers, bringing together live elements with my electronic sound. I guess before the pandemic, I was trying to deliver quantity and was too often rushing the process. Right now, I have learned a lot about improving my creative process. It has become more fun and organic. More enjoyable than working solo on a software. Computers are algorithms and numbers, but your mind has no limits, and even so-called “mistakes” we do contribute to creativity.
Tell us more about these African gems re-edits you have done.
During the past year I have also been digging all over the place. In particular rare African jams – even if I won’t be re-editing them, I will be playing them, you know. During this pandemic, I have been buying music from everywhere: not just African sound but also Indian compilations, underground jazz from New York. Anything. I have been expanding my musical knowledge, because what matters in the end is the feeling of the music, not where it comes from or how it was made. My music is getting way more organic, and that’s what I am feeling right now. Music that’s got soul. I naturally went into this re-edit series (available here) starting with maestros such as Salif Keita and Sekouba Bambino as a way to bring them into my own sets and share a different take on them with the world.
So it’s like using electronic music as a platform for more traditional sounds?
Exactly. That’s been true even for me in fact: I discovered African music through electronic music. You know, I got into this electronic thing when I was super young. It was something different, more energetic, it caught me completely. And as you’ll see in my selection with Dennis Ferrer’s Funu, that’s how I started hearing African music mixed with electro, which led me to discover the charms and beauty of music coming out of Africa and beyond. I remember the old chill-out compilations for example, where I’d hear beautiful Indian or Afghani music, I’d start researching the artist and discovering whole new genres. So yes, electronic music is a good conduit for other cultures and folklores to be discovered, and I wish producers would get more into it. It benefits these cultures, but it also giving new life to electronic music, by bringing new sounds and inspirations. It’s been true in Morocco with Gnaoua and Berber cultures, which found new exposure but also helped refresh our own electronic sound. Coming back to your earlier question, it’s also what’s motivated me with the African re-edits… Even though artists like Salif Keita have become super famous, I do think they may not have gotten all the light they deserve. At least not with the younger generation.
How do you see Morocco connected with the rest of the Continent?
I really don’t understand how Africans get separated in their minds. Many Moroccans don’t see themselves as Africans, somehow. They often think they are more Arab people than African, because some of our ancestors came from Saudi and that region back in the days. But we’ve been on the Continent for centuries. We are 100% African. I see the same south of the Sahara, where many people don’t recognize the Maghreb or Egypt as fully African. That’s very odd to me. I guess partly it’s color, religion, or languages. There’s also something about cultures which are different, but that’s true across the whole Continent. For me, I have always felt strongly as African, not so much as an Arab. As an artist, I connected with the rest of the Continent through music. Most music I like I discovered through Africans or the diaspora, including house and hip-hop, which started with African Americans. Seeing that artists living in the US knew more about African music than me who lived on the Continent motivated me early on to get to know what’s happening in my own backyard in Senegal, Mali or Nigeria.
Your career fluctuated a lot between events and production.
Way back in the day, I used to organize lots of events, bringing in big house DJs to Morocco. It was good but I had to take time away from that, to really invest in my own musical career, so I could make a name for myself, both as DJ and producer. I completely stopped for many years, but last year, FNX and I were approached by Comptoir Darna, which is a real institution in Marrakech, to curate a regular night called Souktronic. They asked me and FNX to take care of the artistic direction to bring a new and different flavor to the scene. It was a really good experience and opportunity to express ourselves, and we hope to continue this adventure once possible again.
How do you see the evolution of the electronic music scene in the Maghreb?
I would say that it’s starting to take over now. There are a lot more events and festivals and the scene is growing bigger. It’s become a real trend. People think it’s cool to listen to electronic music and it’s almost turning mainstream with younger folks. But sadly, I think we lost some the underground values and message behind the music. The real scene – the underground scene, people who are in there for the love and for the passion – remains very small.
Masters At Work – I Can’t Get No Sleep (feat. India)
One of the first house music records I ever heard and the first by Masters At Work (ndlr. it’s the name of the duo composed of Louie Vega and Kenny Dope). People who know me, know how much Masters At Work influenced my whole career. They completely redefined musical theory for me. I still love it, and still play it, and still can’t get no sleep when I hear it, LOL.
Francois K – Time & Space
Also one of the very first electronic music tracks I heard. Funnily enough, this song made me “tolerate” the electronic element in house music. I used to love very organic and soulful house music, bass line, Hammond organs, brass section and all that. But this track switched everything around again. The song is stripped down and electro and he sold me on this kind of sound. He’s been doing a lot of streaming during the pandemic, which I followed. I still love and respect him and play his music a lot.
Jerome Sydenham & Kerri Chandler – Candela (Demo Flute)
These guys were quite the combo back in those days. This version of the track, the Demo Flute, was the first time I heard from Ibadan records, which became instantly, and still remains, one of my top 5 labels of all time. You know, that label was launched by Jerome Sydenham, who was born in Ibadan, Nigeria and they been at the forefront of pushing panafrican sounds within the house and techno genres. Actually, one of the greatest things that happened to me during this pandemic was getting an email from Ibadan’s A&R asking me to produce a remix for them.
Vince Watson – Progress (Joe Claussell Remix)
Vince has been one of my favorite producers over the last ten years. This year he dropped a Remixes EP, which included legends such as Osunlade, Manoo and obviously Joe Claussell among others. For me, this has been one of the best releases for this year, and this song in particular is a very emotional track that, which touched me deeply during this pandemic. My only frustration is not having been able to play it yet to an audience, but am sure I’ll be playing it a lot after all this.
Dennis Ferrer – Funu (Hi-Life mix)
This was the very first house music track I heard with African elements. It was such a shock. I was like “OK, so African music can be mixed with African elements”. It was a perfect combination, which respected both Afrobeat and house music.
Manoo – Kodjo
Back in 2009, I discovered Manoo though this track. This song was instrumental in really making me love Afro-house. I have played this song so much, like every second gig I do, I still play this song. Whenever I am feeling the crowd, I’ll play Kodjo.
Louie Vega Starring Julie McKnight – Bittersweet Love Affair (Dance Ritual Mix)
One of my top five house music tracks of all time, because it has a very strong message, the lyrics are well written and the musical production by Louie Vega made it perfect. It always gives me goosebumps.
Africanism Presents Soha - Les Enfants Du Bled
Back then, I had never heard anything that was combining Afro-house with melancholic electronic elements like. It was produced by Soha, a duo that was composed by Gregory and Julien Jabre, and it’s absolutely one of my all-time favorite songs. I think new Afro-house producers should take this track as an example. It’s a very good combination of house and electro elements with still a strong African vibe to it.
Femi Kuti – Truth Don Die
I play this Afrobeat song super regularly. It had been remixed by the great Kerri Chandler back in the day, but I still dig the original and its one of the very few Afrobeat tracks I would play on a house music set. Yes man, Afrobeat is life!
Culoe De Song – Far Away
I picked it to showcase a new generation producer on this list. This song is very trippy and triggers some kind of strong feeling. I want to pay tribute to Culoe, whom I don’t think got the recognition he deserves. He is one of the most brilliant electronic music producers on the Continent, and in my view, one of the few who really takes time to arrange his music. I love this guy and really hope he gets the shine he deserves.